What is a virus?

This is a very topical subject about which much has been written and said in recent months. However, I have heard enough things from people and observed enough behavior to know that there is a lot of confusion. Many people want to do the right thing, but are having difficulty sorting good advice from bad; the latter often being delivered by people with alternative agendas [money, politics etc.]. There is little to debate as the science is fairly well proven …

Some of the stupid things that I have heard:
“Viruses can breed anywhere.”
“Masks are pointless.”
“It is best to swab everything with anti-bac wipes.”
“I am demanding a high dose of antibiotics.”

Maybe I can dispel a few myths. First off, viruses and bacteria are not the same thing; not even remotely. This is the root of so many mistakes.

Bacteria are very small organisms. Many of them can breed in a very wide range of environments from very cold to very hot. Most are innocuous to humans; they do us no harm or good. Many are beneficial or essential to our wellbeing. Others are harmful or even fatal. There are a wide range of anti-bacterial substances, like hand sanitizers and wipes. Infections can commonly be addressed with antibiotics. A recent outbreak of bubonic plague was reported, which sounds alarming, as, historically, this was a mass killer. Modern antibiotics are a very effective treatment.

A virus is not a living thing at all. It is not alive, so you cannot kill it. It cannot breed independently – it needs to infect a host [like a human] and hijack systems to replicate more copies of itself. The side effect of this process is what can make the host sick. A virus is just a very large, incredibly complex molecule. A key purpose of our immune system is to generate the means to deactivate viruses. The problem is that some of them can have a devastating effect before the immunity is established; this is what vaccines are all about, as they “prime” the immune system so that it can respond quickly. Many viruses are host-specific, so your dog might be infected, but you are safe; others are more flexible.

Viruses are typically quite fragile. Generally, high temperatures will damage them, but it need not be that hot – perhaps 30C. Radiation – like ultra-violet or microwaves – is damaging. Strong alcohol solvent can destroy them, but it needs to be a higher concentration than is typically used for antibacterial wipes etc. Hand washing is very effective as the mechanical process removes them, the hot water can make them break down and this is helped by soap, as this compromises the protective fatty layer around the virus. Masks are effective, contrary to many “stories”, as even though air can pass through one, the virus molecules are much, much larger. More importantly, they are often hydrophilic and, hence, stick to tiny airborne water droplets that the mask can easily stop.

I am not an expert, but I believe I have a reasonable understanding of the science and hope that the above is helpful. If I have made an error [big or small] or missed something important, please do let me know so that I can correct it. I may be contacted by comment, email or via social media

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2020/07/16/what-is-a-virus/